Polish Jazz for Dummies: 60 Years of Jazz from Poland

Cezary L. Lerski By

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Not surprisingly, Komeda, Kurylewicz and Trzaskowski, all of them formerly of Melomani, became leading figures. Interestingly, another "giant" of Melomani fame, "Dudus" Matuszkiewicz, initially followed a much more lucrative livelihood as a composer of popular music for television and cinema but later on came back to his first love -jazz. During the 1960s, both Kurylewicz and Trzaskowski were exponents of the so-called Third Stream, the hybrid of jazz and philharmonic music. This fascination with more "serious" music and an attraction to contemporary techniques of composition overlapped with composers of contemporary Polish music such as Baird, Schoefer and Penderecki. Although controversial and not always satisfying, Third Stream experiments expanded the vocabulary of jazz and enhanced both artistic sensitivity and its overall image.

Krzysztof Komeda's role in Polish jazz cannot be explained in merely a few words. Genius, composer, visionary, collaborator and leader cannot fully describe him. How could this very average pianist and rather dull improviser with a medical degree make such a great impact on Polish jazz? How could all of the musicians who played with him emphasize what an overwhelming impact his music and his personality made on them? His music is still alive, inspiring new artists and conquering new hordes of listeners more than three decades after his tragically early death at the age of 38. The music of Komeda escapes simple classification and description. During his life, Komeda released only one album, Astigmatic, but a release with more influence on Polish jazz has yet to be recorded.

In 1962 a young trumpet player called Tomasz Stanko, created the Jazz Darings, later described by jazz critic J.E. Berndt as the "first European free jazz combo." During the late 1960s, many avant-garde musicians in Poland were discovering the free jazz concepts of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Interestingly, due to the isolation of the country, the Polish style developed independently. Some of the new names soon became very significant, such as trumpeter Andrzej Przybielski, bass players Helmut Nadolski, Jacek Bednarek and Czeslaw Gladkowski and alto saxophonist Zbigniew Seifert. In 1968, Seifert joined the newly formed Stanko Quintet, soon switched from alto sax to electric violin, and the next chapter of European jazz history began. Stanko Quintet disbanded in 1973 on the pick of its creative potential and after achieving cult- like following in Europe. During next few years Quintet's violinist Zbigniew Seifert became leading European jazz musician and the first violist capable to "transcend the spirit of Coltrane music. Tragically, his promising American and world career abruptly ended with his death to leukemia in 1979.

Gradually, as the '60s came to an end, new talents emerged and fresh musicians began to play more important roles. Some had already made their mark, such as the Zbigniew Namyslowski Quartet, Wlodzimierz Nahorny and the best Polish vocal group ever: NOVI Singers. Others, such as the extraordinary pianists Mieczyslaw Kosz carried the legacy of the jazz art form into the next decade.


Five names dominated and defined the Polish jazz of the 1970s: Zbigniew Namyslowski, Adam Makowicz, Tomasz Stanko, Michal Urbaniak, and Jan "Ptaszyn" Wroblewski. All of them played distinctive and different types of music but all had something in common: world-class jazz.

During the 1970s, the third decade of Wroblewski's career, he truly became an indispensable ingredient in the many flavors being created. Wroblewski was already an accomplished tenor and baritone player in a variety of bands, leading his own small groups with straight-ahead inclinations and a love of Horace Silver phrasing. But the accomplishments of Mainstream have become obscured by his much closer association with free jazz and Studio Jazzowe Polskiego Radia. Created in 1968, the Studio was a unique blend: part venue for free expression by virtuosos and soloists and part workshop for musicians and composers. It would be virtually impossible to find any important Polish jazz composer or soloist who at one time or another in their career had not been involved with the Studio. Musicians, composers and soloists had a chance to test their own ideas and have them confronted and discussed in a peer-group setting. Without the Studio and without its leader, Wroblewski, Polish jazz would not be the same.

What might have been initially a joke, or the result of the willful consumption of too much liquid distillated from Polish potatoes, another forum for Wroblewski's expression in the 1970s was Stowarzyszenie Popierania Prawdziwej Tworczosci (or Chalturnik), a natural extension for the Studio's experiments. However, Chalturnik had a more intimate and relaxed atmosphere and used musical persiflage or banter. Nevertheless, the premise remained the same: to experiment, to confront taboos, to challenge judgments and to take new unorthodox approaches to attitudes never before questioned. Wroblewski also created many popular hits that were later to become evergreens of Polish pop music and worked as a DJ.

In 1973, Michal Urbaniak released the groundbreaking album Fusion. This LP, recorded and released in the USA, very accurately captured Urbaniak as a leading force of not only Polish but American jazz. All elements of his artistic personality are already there: straight-ahead expression paired with Slavic ingenuousness, musical eclectics, contemporary articulation and the influence of Polish folk music, all flawlessly incorporated into the vocabulary of American jazz. In the next decades, Urbaniak has continued his hunt after cutting edge styles, sounds, genres and technologies from the jazz-rock of 1970s to the fusion and funk of the 1980s to the hip-hop of the 1990s always founding inspiration in his own folk tradition, when at the same time, creating homogenous form of musical expression in a truly unique jazz art form.

Adam Makowicz is one of the real geniuses of Polish jazz. His brilliant career spans decades and until today he always amazes jazz fans with his virtuosity and swing. AsJim Fuselli once wrote about him in The Wall Street Journal: "Adam Makowicz has been praised by Benny Goodman, compared with Art Tatum, Erroll Garner and Teddy Wilson, honored by jazz publications and toasted all over Europe as a genius. Mr. Makowicz's fiery style, firm chording, and rapid, Tatumesque right hand phrasing make him more than deserving of the accolades he has received."


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